Sunday, July 11, 2010

Heliotherapy in Switzerland

Here is an intriguing photo that I took at the exhibition "Magic Mountains: Switzerland as  Energy Centre and Sanatorium" in the Swiss National Museum in Zürich. It shows a nurse giving a child a glass of ovalmaltine.  The child and nurse are on skis, they are standing on snow and surrounded by high peaks, but what makes the photo most odd is the near nakedness of the youngster. 

As Helen Webberley has written, the concept of healthy living reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was particularly strong in the German speaking world. In my last post I showed how many people sought solace from the ugliness of modern, industrial society by seeking a more natural way of living.  Some emphasised a healthy diet, particularly vegetarianism, and Swiss doctor Max Bircher recommended muesli.

By the early 20th century Switzerland became the destination of choice of those who suffered from some physical or spiritual ailment and who could afford the latest treatment.  Hermann Hesse was a frequent visitor to health clinics in Baden, Davos and Zürich.  Thomas Mann, in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, captured the almost religious dedication to healthy living found at a sanatorium in Davos.  Those who visited Davos included not only Mann himself but also the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle.  Mann describes how the patients would lie quietly on their sun beds on the balconies of their rooms and soak up the invigorating rays of the sun.

Thomas Mann (second from left) and Hermann Hesse (right) in Davos, Switzerland.

Originally it was the Swiss doctor Arnold Rikli (1823-1906) who proposed that the sun’s rays on the naked body could cure all sorts of illness.  He recommended that a healthy lifestyle should include fresh air, mineral water, vegetarianism, avoidance of alcohol and tobacco and, above all, the use of sunbath installations.  He put this concept of heliotherapy into practice in his own sanatrorium in Slovenia. His ideas were applied in his native Switzerland, in Ascona, in the Monte Verita commune, which attracted theosophists, anarchist, communists and other supporters of the life reform movement. On the nearby Brissago Isles in Lake Maggiore the millionaire bohemian Max Emden practiced nudity and sunbathing in his modern Roman Baths as well as on his speedboat and yacht. What they all shared was a hatred of modern civilization. Nudity was seen not simply as a counter-establishment choice and a move towards liberation, but it was also seen as an option within a healthy lifestyle, particularly powerful in the fight against tuberculosis. Richard Ungewitter's Die Nacktheit, which promoted nudism as well as abstention from alcohol, meat and tobacco, became a bestseller in 1904. The print below, from the artist Fidus,  sums up the Monte Verita attitude to nudity and sun worship. Entitled "Prayer to Light" it became the icon of the Life Reform Movement that centred around Ascona.  Although it looks like an example of 1960s psychedelia, Fidus, who was highly influenced by the mystical ideas of Theosophy and the German Wandervogel movement ( a youth organisation that promoted hiking and camping in nature) before discovering the Monte Verita commune, painted it in 1906. 

In 1903 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to Doctor Niels Finsen (1860-1904) for his work in treating patients with tuberculosis of the skin with ultra-violet light.  That same year the Swiss physician Auguste Rollier (1874-1954) initiated the use of sunbaths at his tuberculosis sanatorium in Leysin, in south western Switzerland.  The photo that I began with comes from Rollier’s Leysin clinic. A healthy diet (hence the ovalmaltine) and plenty of sunbathing became the chief features of this sanatorium that appealed to Europe wealthy class.  Its fame spread quickly and in 1931 the sanatorium’s residents were treated to a lecture from the great Mahatma Gandhi, where he extolled the benefits of vegetarianism and a sober lifestyle.

Auguste Rollier (centre) seeing a patient undergoing heliotherepy in his clinic in Leysin. (Copyright: Association pour le Patrimoine de Leysin)

Riki’s innovation certainly had some success in the fight against tuberculosis.  But, in retrospect, we now know that his treatment must have left many of his patients with a malignant legacy – skin cancer.


  1. It is fascinating, what health messages stick in the public mind and what fades. I was born after WW2 when healthy child raising was a critical issue for young mothers. Whatever ailed a child (asthma, hives, croup, skin conditions, infected sinuses etc) could be cured by:
    -dunking the body and face in the open ocean
    -fresh air and sunshine on the skin
    -vigorous exercise and
    -healthy, fresh food, especially milk, fruit and vegetables. Junk food, had it been around, would have been forbidden.
    Dr Arnold Rikli would have been very proud :)

  2. But now, in Australia especially, sunshine on the skin is practically forbidden I believe.

  3. This is a fascinating entry! Having lived in South Africa and England, i can see two perfectly opposed theories: in SA we wear sunscreen and sun hats, don't linger outside between 11am and 3pm and apply lots of moisturiser to soothe the skin. But that is because we had the luxury of sunshine! In England, people seem much more eager to get outside and suntan and strip their clothes off! Women also seem much more likely to tan their full bodies or even faces in tanning salons. Tanning your face is unheard of in SA!!

    This was a lovely peek into health and beauty of yesteryear!

  4. I was a patient of Dr Rollier from late 1940's to mid 1950's at the Clinique La Riondaz, Leysin. The Clinique was run by the Diakonessen Schwester. The Sister in charge when I left was Schwester Gertrud. Dr Rollier was succeded by Dr Frank, a Dutch doctor who did the rounds with Dr Rollier before the latter's retirement. Each day's "Sonnenkur" lasted only up to a couple of hours and we were then rubbed down with "Benzine" I believe some form of alcohol.

  5. Thanks ever so much for this comment Ivanovich. It is certainly interesting to hear from an ex-patient of Dr. Rollier and someone who has had personal experience of heliotherapy in Leysin.

  6. Speaking of personal experience, I have lived in the clinic in Leysin (now a private boarding school) for the last five years. This is a picture of my apartment and view. The huge balcony has been closed into a sun room, but the exact same railing is still there! Nice to see it in its first incarnation.

  7. Fascinating picture. I am making a documentary and would like to use this picture. Do you know the year it was taken? Plus I would like to give credit for the photo.



    1. I'm afraid I can't remember the exact date. To give credit, the picture is in the catalogue of the exhibition:
      Zauber Berge.Die Schweiz Als Kraftraum Und Sanatorium. Edited by Felix Graf, Eberhard Wolff.
      Zurich, 2010. ISBN 978-3-03919-162-8

  8. Researching Thomas Mann this morning, I stumbled on this excellent piece on heliotherapy. I think old Mann would have liked the Fidus illustration!

  9. Stumbled on this by accident as I was researching on old stick-in-the-mud Thomas Mann - I think he'd like the Fidus illustration!